Archive for the ‘McCabe, Patrick (5)’ Category

Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCabe

February 20, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

Patrick McCabe has a special place on the KfC blog. It was just over four years ago, after reading his new novel, that I signed up with WordPress and penned the first book review I had written in some decades, thinking I would reread it the next day and decide whether or not to enter the book-blogging world. Completely unaware that I had created links to some blogs where I was a regular visitor, that hesitant review of The Holy City by the next morning had produced some instant comments from book bloggers around the world — like it or not, KfC had inadvertently joined the blogging world. 428 posts later, it is a happenstance that I have never regretted.

I have a fondness for Irish authors — there is no doubt John McGahern is a personal favorite and I will be introducing yet another, John Broderick, in the next post here — but McCabe will always occupy a privileged position in that select company. His Ireland and his story-telling are characterized by off-the-wall plots and even stranger characters but he uses them to extraordinary effect in portraying the land and people that he obviously loves.

Breakfast on Pluto, published in 1998, comes from McCabe’s mid-career (novel six of 12 published to date as far as I can tell) and is an excellent example of his distinctiveness. The Troubles that plagued Ireland throughout the 20th century have apparently come to an end and in the conclusion to a short prelude the author states his intention for this novel:

The war over, now perhaps we too can take — however tentatively — those first few steps which may end unease and see us there; home, belonging and at peace.

In one sense, all four of the McCabe novels that I have read (WinterWood and The Stray Sod Country are the other two) are “historical” tales of the impact of Ireland’s troubles. In another, however, all are better viewed as black fantasies where McCabe leans on the absurd to sketch his version of that history.

The conceit of Breakfast on Pluto is that it is a series of exercises written by the hero, Patrick Braden, at the direction of one Dr. Terence, a psychiatrist who is treating him, apparently under court order. These too are introduced by a prelude, “I Was a High-Class Escort Girl”, which opens:

Although I am afraid I don’t get too many clients these days! I can just imagine the reaction of my old acquaintances if they saw me now, sitting here in my silly old coat and headscarf — off out that door and down London’s Kilburn High Road with the lot of them, no doubt! Still, no point in complaining — after all, every beauty has to lose her looks sometime and if the gold-digging days of poor old darling poo poo puss are gone for ever, well then so be it. I ain’t gonna let it bother me, girls! Just give me Vic Damone, South Pacific, plus a yummy stack of magazines and I’ll be happy, as once more I go leafing through the pages of New Faces of the Fifties, Picturegoer, Screen Parade, gaily mingling with the stars of long ago.

Patrick prefers to be known as Paddy Pussy, his trade name as a transvestite prostitute. How did this Irish lad, born in Tyreelin in 1955, come to this end?

Well, for starters, Paddy is a bastard, the son of the local priest, Father Bernard McIvor:

When asked why he no longer sang in the church on Christmas morning, his eyes would appear to glaze over and he would regard his inquistor with an expression of mystification almost as if the reasons were far beyond him too. Which they weren’t of course, for as many of his parishoners knew, despite rarely giving voice to it in public, the what might be termed: Change in Father Bernard dated back to a single 1950s morning and to no other — the morning he inserted his excitable pee pee into the vagina of a woman who was so beautiful she looked not unlike Mitzi Gaynor the well-known film star. And then arranged for her to go to London so that there would be no dreadful scandal. ‘Dear, dear. I wonder what is wrong with Father Bernard,’ his parishoners would say, adding: ‘He’s not the man he was at all.’

The defiled mother may have been sent to London, but baby Patrick is parked for care and upbringing with Mrs. “Whiskers” Braden who in a drunken state blabs about the clerical parentage to an adolescent Patrick. His voyage into transvestism begins shortly afterwards when he begins experimenting with Whiskers’ comestics and clothes.

Certainly, a critical picture of the repressive nature of the Roman Catholic Church is a frequent element of Irish fiction, but I hope that sketchy outline gives an indication of the distinctly off-kilter point of view that McCabe brings to the story in general. Paddy Pussy’s trade as a transvestite prostitute provides the grounds for introducing a number of hypocritical men of stature who employ and fawn over “her”. Eventually, he/she will head to England in search of her birth mother — that occurs during the late 1970s when the IRA bombings were at their peak, so readers get an equally distorted view of that particularly violent aspect of the story.

As all these absurdities pile up, it is hard not to come the conclusion that author McCabe finds this era in Irish history simply too horrendous to approach in anything resembling “normal” terms — so he has created his own in which to frame the story.

That’s a convenient device which could all too easily become an escapist cliche. McCabe avoids that trap: from start to finish, Paddy is an engaging, often sympathetic character, doing his best to deal with (escape?) the circumstances surrounding him. These are truly absurd, so why not react with a fantasy response to the same thing? And employing the device of recounting all this through memories written down by a “recovering” Paddy at the direction of a psychiatrist supplies an appropriate bridge between the two.

Breakfast on Pluto has its weaknesses but succeeds as a worthwhile novel. For this reader at least, it is best viewed (as are the other McCabes that I have read) in contrast to McGahern’s portraits from the same era. While most of McGahern’s novels are brutally realistic in their portrayal of that Ireland, McCabe’s skewed view produces a reality of its own. As he says in the opening prelude, it is a way, “however tentatively”, of taking “those first few steps which may end unease and see us there; home, belonging and at peace.”


The Stray Sod Country, by Patrick McCabe

March 18, 2011

Purchased at

This may be a bit of a spoiler for some (although I don’t think so), but it is hard to talk about the Stray Sod Country — the phenomenon as opposed to the book — without offering at least some indication of what it is. The author spends the first third of The Stray Sod Country illustrating and developing elements of it before offering this summary:

In Irish folklore it is routinely asserted that access to the Stray Sod Country is gained by means of the unholy gate. And that once you have reached it, you will find that you have been deceived and that you have now arrived in a place where the world can never be the same again. Your senses will have been overtaken by a heightened faculty of observation which can only result in the most unnamable terror of all — cosmic loneliness.

I have read and reviewed two previous Patrick McCabe novels (The Holy City — the very first post on this blog — and WinterWood). All three of those books feature some characteristics which I’m inclined to label “the McCabe toolbox”. Set in small Irish communities (this one in Cullymore), in the present tense of the novel not much happens — small town life does not have big time events but the little ones are every bit as major to the people who experience them. But looming throughout, and often coming to the fore, are centuries of inescapable Irish history and, most important, folklore which often overtake the mundane of the present with terrifying consequences. What distinguishes McCabe from many of his fellow Irish writers, however, is a third element — the creeping presence of global change (McCabe’s Ireland is the Celtic Tiger, not that of the Troubles) which is imposing new pressures on these sleepy communities just as surely as the folklore of the past is twisting the present.

The “narrator” of The Stray Sod Country, who does make first person appearances and observations particularly in the latter part of the book when he confirms that he is directing the “action”, is what the non-Irish world would call the Devil — he’s known to the locals as Fetch or Nobodaddy. There is no central character to the novel, rather an ensemble of Cullymore residents. The “present” of the novel is 1958 — the Soviets have just launched the dog, Laika, into space. This is the story of a community (influenced by that timeless Devil) and the dramatis personae are the people who live there:

Cullymore was a border town with an equal number of Protestants and Catholics, numbering two thousand in total. It had always been a source of pride for the community that, by and large — unlike so many other places — somehow everyone got along together. Which made it all the more regrettable that the ongoing feud between James Reilly and their parish priest showed no sign of subsiding. In fact, if anything, it appeared to be getting worse.

The setting is Ireland, so you can’t avoid that religious tension but Cullymore is different in the way that it handles it. That parish priest, Father Hand, for example is not preoccupied by Protestant enemies — his nemesis is Father Patrick Peyton, originally from the West of Ireland, now living in the United States where he is known as “a friend to the stars” and for his Rosary Crusade. Father Patrick Peyton, with the help of stars such as Frank Sinatra (yes, the irony of casting Mafia-buddy Frank is deliberate — McCabe has many others as well), is filling Madison Square Garden and his Crusade is attracting much media attention. Father Hand’s response (“…if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll best the infuriatingly smug Mayo toady”) is to commission an Easter week performance of Tenebrae, to be performed in his church by actors recruited from town notables. Preparing for that performance will be one of the key driving narrative forces in the present tense of the novel.

The James Reilly of the previous quote used to be a teacher in the local school until, apparently under the influence of Nobodaddy, he kissed an attractive young male student passionately on the lips one day — he says he doesn’t remember the incident. Led by Father Hand, the community promptly saw to his removal from his job and he now subsides just outside of town in a shack where he carefully maintains a family heirloom, a World War I vintage Lee Enfield rifle, and plots his revenge on the priest. The local constable assumes the rifle is far too old to actually fire; he is devastatingly wrong.

The ensemble cast is very large, but let me introduce just two more: Patsy Murray, the barber, and his wife, Golly (derived somehow from Geraldine).

He’s Catholic, she’s Protestant — Cullymore may be a tolerant community but even then some of the local worthies (most specificly the bank manager’s wife, Blossom Foster) are concerned by the mixed marriage:

— Marrying one of them, Blossom Foster had declared coldly, is of no advantage to anyone and she ought to have known that.

— You know, Protestants have it in them sometimes to be very hard, Patsy Murray heard his wife murmur when they found themselves lying in bed one night, so quietly cruel that it can be difficult to accept.

Like the Father Hand-James Reilly feud, the Golly-Blossom one will continue throughout the novel, escalating slowly but surely under the direction of the omnipresent narrator, be he Fetch or Nobodaddy or the Devil himself.

I have introduced only a handful of the cast (there’s an artist, carpenter, pool hall owner and young IRA recruit among others to be added — and those are just the males) and they all get involved in equally petty feuds. More important for The Stray Sod Country the novel, however, is that every one of them at some point comes under the influence of that Devil and enters the world of “cosmic loneliness” that is the Stray Sod Country of the place where they live.

McCabe’s third element, the inevitable change imposed by the modern world, becomes increasingly a factor in the latter part of the book, but I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that the folk tale which the author works hard to establish in the first half of the book acquires some very modern elements as he brings it to a close.

That supernatural element — and its inherent darkness — means that McCabe is not for everyone since he demands from the reader an acceptance that it might, at the very least, be plausible. If you are willing to grant him that licence, you do enter McCabe’s world of past (the timeless supernatural), present (mundane but marked by continuing petty feuds) and future (there is a bigger world out there that is changing even traditional Ireland).

The fact that I have read three of his works (and have a couple of his earlier novels on the shelves as well) is indication enough that I am willing to enrol in his approach. Personally, I did prefer The Holy City to this one, mainly because the modern thread in that novel was much more present than it is here. Despite that caveat, The Stray Sod Country was an investment of reading time that provided entirely satisfactory results. McCabe’s Ireland differs from that of most of his colleagues — it is an intriguing world nonetheless.

WinterWood, by Patrick McCabe

January 8, 2010

Purchased at

I am breaking convention here by posting the title as WinterWood instead of Winterwood, but my look at the cover of the book says that the second “W” is also a capital. These are the kinds of dilemmas that author Patrick McCabe loves posing for readers. And it is only fitting that a novel that requires readers to make some choices about what they believe to be “real” as they explore the content of the book should start with a choice of just what the title is.

The very first post on the KfC blog was a review here of McCabe’s The Holy City, one of my favorite reads from 2009. McCabe is Irish, but not the Irish of the “troubles” — he comes from the Irish of the Celtic Tiger, albeit with references back to the troubled past. Last year’s book was a very interesting study of a society in economic transition and provoked comments from trusted sources that said WinterWood was his best book — it has been sitting on a shelf awaiting winter for some months. I am glad that I finally got to it.

Redmond Hatch has been a wanderer all of his life, seeking some kind of destiny, and has wandered into media (which was my trade when I had a day job). He has returned to the “mountainess” territory of Slievenagheea (these are mountains if you are Irish, they are hills to those of us in the shadow of the Rockies) and has stumbled into an acquaintance with Auld Pappie Ned, a fiddler who has some local acclaim. Hatch is on assignment for the Leinster News, a not very good newspaper, and it is his first visit home in some years:

And was more than glad that I did, as it happened, for quite unexpectedly it turned out to be festival week, with a ceilidh starting up as I drove into town. On a crude platform in the square a slap-bass combo was banging away goodo, with a whiskery old-timer sawing at his fiddle, stomping out hornpipes to beat the band. He must have been close on seventy years of age, with a curly copper thatch and this great unruly beard touched throughout with streaks of silver. He slapped his thighs and whooped and catcalled, encouraging anyone who knew it to join in the “traditional come-all-you”!

That is the second paragraph of the book and it is author McCabe’s invite into the volume. If you are willing to come along for the ride, please join in — if not, discard the novel now and move on to something else. The fiddler is Auld Pappie Ned, who may or may not be real and may or may not be related to Redmond. He has stories to tell and he tells (and sings) them but one of the challenges for the reader is to figure out just how much of what he tells (sings) is real and how much a figment of his, or Redmond’s, imagination.

It is convenient to describe books like this as centring on an “unreliable” narrator and then focus on that unreliability. I think that is a mistake with this book — Redmond is a narrator who does have a clouded memory, not just of what happened, but also with his own part in it. He is not so much unreliable as uncertain and part of the reader’s journey is to help figure out how to deal with that uncertainty.

It doesn’t just involve Auld Pappie Ned, it also concerns his love affair and marriage with Catherine Courtney, a liaison that eventually produces a child, Imogen. We know early on that the relationship has dissolved, but don’t know why since we read about it only from Redmond’s point of view — and we know we can’t trust that. And we become aware of his obsessiveness with Immy. Midway through the book, Auld Pappie contemplates his own failed relationship as he and Redmond share some “clear” (moonshine):

Oh, sure, once upon a time there was a little sweetheart I had a dalliance with all right — a lovely little girl by the name of Annamarie Gordon, as I recall. And I have to admit I might have been that little bit soft on her. But sure what she want with an old mongrel the like of me? In the end, anyway, Redmond, she went off and married a doctor. Lives in England or someplace now, I hear. But a lovely girl she was all the same. Now where in the divil did I put that jug of clear?

It was a masterful performance and there was no doubt about it. He could simply, effortlessly, run rings around me. And I know that, although maybe it’s not something to be particularly proud of, there have been many times since that day I called to the house and collected Immy when I would have given anything to have possessed even a fraction of Ned Strange’s formidable resourcefulness. The tiniest percentage of his linguistic dexterity, the meagrest portion of his adroitly evasive, exculpatory strategies.

Auld Pappie spins yarns for Redmond. And Redmond spins yarns (perhaps not quite as convincingly) for himself, those around him and we readers. And McCabe spins yarns that we are free to believe — or to reject. Incidentally, the sentence fragments and the abrupt and unexplained change of voice in that quote are also typical of McCabe. An important aspect of his style is to maintain an uncertainty not just of what is real and what is not but also just where you are as a reader at any given time. It is somewhat disconcerting at first, but becomes a worthwhile part of the experience once you get used to the technique.

The Winter Wood of the title is this novel’s version of a Greek temple, where all the conflicting streams come together. As in The Holy City, McCabe sets this novel in the expanding Ireland that is, finally, joining the global economy and that is a very important thread for the book — the contrast between traditional and modern worlds is every bit as important as the contrast between faulty and realistic memory.

It is to McCabe’s credit that WinterWood would fit a number of genre descriptions. In one sense, it is a thriller (people do die in this book). In another, it is an “Irish” novel, exploring how the changing world affects those who live there. And for those readers who are interested in “unreliable” narrators, Redmond is as unreliable as you can get.

Above all, however, WinterWood is a good read. McCabe creates interesting characters, puts them into even more interesting situations and ends up with a highly readable volume. He is probably capable of better work, but that judgment in no way is a negative reflection on this novel.

A Trio of Coming of Age Novels

March 15, 2009





The Glister, by John Burnside

The Holy City, by Patrick McCabe

John The Revelator, by Peter Murphy


“Coming of age” has been a theme of novels for as long as novels have existed.  Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) features a young heroine and the choices she — or her family — wants to make about her future.  Jane Austen used the theme in all her major works.  Henry James and Edith Wharton found it a useful device as the 20th century dawned; J.D. Salinger (and a host of other authors) continued the tradition at mid-century.

So, having read three impressive “coming of age” novels released in the last year, I thought it worthwhile to explore how these authors — two of them well-established, one a first novelist — used this centuries-old device in service of their craft.  (And I can’t help but note, as you can see from the covers above, that the graphic artists also seem to have found a common theme in these books.  It is strange that the covers are so similiar and use such a common theme.)

John Burnside’s novel was released last spring in the U.K. as Glister and in North America in the last few weeks with the title changed to The Glister — a subtle change of which I don’t approve, but it is a spoiler to say why (we can discuss in comments, if anyone is interested).  I became aware of this novel through discussions on the Man Booker forum where a number of people argued that it belonged on the longlist.  Will of Just William’s Luck included it in his top three of the year — since I only have space for a short summary, I’ll point you to his review for an excellent extended opinion.

Leonard, the 15-year-old narrator of Glister, lives in the (apparently) Scottish coastal community of Innertown, next door to an abandoned chemical plant that produced fertilizers, insecticides and, maybe, chemical weapons.  The plant has left its own mark on the community (high cancer rates) — more important to the novel is that every year or so a teenage boy goes missing.  The community wants to think they have run away; readers know from the start (through the experience of the town cop, Morrison) that they are being murdered.

Most of the narrative of Glister is Leonard’s story and the trail that leads to him being a victim (again, not a spoiler — we know that from the prologue).  That is not, however, what the novel is really about.  Burnside uses Leonard’s story to explore the disintegration of the Innertown community that the chemical plant has caused; the compromises (centred on Morrison, but also with others) in human behavior that that has produced and the unreal world of the present (Will’s characterization of it as a “grim fairy tale” is entirely appropriate) that has resulted.  In its own way, Leonard’s story becomes the story of terror — a “coming of age” reflection of growing up in a community that is a wasteland, both physically and morally.  His life and demise are a metaphor for the community where he comes of age.

Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City was the very first book reviewed on this blog and again I only have room for a summary here.  McCabe’s narrator, Chris J. McCool, is 67 when the novel opens — the book is an over-the-shoulder look at his life.  But it is anchored in the coming of age process; at each stage, including the present, when C.J. considers his life, he finds his experience rooted in growing up in Cullymore.  The bastard son of a Protestant squire and a Catholic servant, C.J. always fancies himself as the centre of attention in his world, but never really does fit in — not as a youth, not in middle age and not now as a senior citizen.

Like Burnside, McCabe uses his central character as a metaphor for the world that his novel is really about.  In C.J.’s youth, that focuses on the absurd (but still continuing) conflict and prejudice of Protestant’s and Catholics; as he matures, it involves the strange culture of the 60s, especially music, as that changes Ireland; and now as he enters old age it is the world of the Irish Tiger, including his East European companion/wife Vesna.  At every stage, it is the lessons he learned while coming of age that serve as the lens from which he perceives current reality.  For the reader, the result is a rewarding and fascinating look at how Ireland has changed — and how one person has been effected by that.

In Peter Murphy’s John The Revelator, we meet John Devine (and his single mother, Lily) as a pre-teen in Kilcody, Ireland.  As the book opens, John is beginning to develop his observational skills, yet most of his life continues to be dominated by Lily’s religious obsession, part of which seems to be that having named her son after John the disciple, she needs to pretend that he is a reincarnation of him.

John inevitably starts to come of age.  As a young teenager, he hooks up with Jamey Corboy, the twisted real world opposition to John’s twisted saint of a mother.  Inevitably, John and Jamey get into trouble (that’s part of coming of age), climaxing in a filmed desecration of the local church, that falls into the hands of the local Guard (Jamey was being a film-maker then, but alas left his camcorder and tape behind).  Complications predictably ensue.

The latter part of John The Revelator explore the choices that John has to make between Jamey’s world and that of his mother, who is in the process of dying.  Where Burnside and McCabe use their narrators as foils to explore the world of which they are a part, Murphy looks inward to the critical choices that every person — even a degenerate Irish boy — needs to make as they begin a mature life.

Certainly, these three books have much in common — to be expected, given that all use a growing-up male as the central character.  More important, however, to me is the way in which three excellent authors used that platform in such different ways.  Burnside explores the decay and destruction of a community (both physically and morally) through the experience of Leonard.  McCabe examines how the world in which he himself has lived has changed through the life of C.J.  And Murphy dissects the choices we all face in growing up about which “community” we will decide to make our own.

I have no hesitation in recommending any of these three books.  If you ask me which one I like the best, my answer is The Holy City — the experiences of C.J. McCool raise so many memories of my own that I found myself enrolled in the book from the start.

On the other hand, if you ask me which one of the three that I think is the best novel, I think I would have to say Glister.  In many ways, I think Burnside has set a higher bar and, in the final analysis, is a better writer.

And if you asked me which book creates the best character (surely a relevant question in a “coming of age” novel), I’d say John The Revelator.  Murphy uses John Devine to look inward, the other two novelists use their characters to look outward — so it is no surprise that this book succeeds on that front.

I’d say that Samuel Richardson was on to a pretty good device when he wrote Clarissa.  Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, J.D. Salinger and a host of others (I make no claim that that list is exhaustive — one only has to consider Philip Roth’s Indignation from last fall to start another) have used it to good effect.  All three of these books continue a tradition of putting the device to good use.

And if you have a favorite coming-of-age novel of your own, please don’t hesitate to use the comments to express it — this review is meant to open that door not close it.

The Holy City, by Patrick McCabe.

January 7, 2009

2mccabeThe Holy City, by Patrick McCabe

A most interesting novel from a most interesting author.  Irishman Patrick McCabe has given us Chris J. McCool, age 67, a Catholic bastard who has somehow survived a lot of Irish history.


In his early life, CJ has a problem dealing with his Catholicism — specifically the fact that his mother’s husband, the Protestant  landed gentry, wants no part of him at all.  CJ invents a half-brother and locates him in the manor, beginning a lifelong tendency of creating unreal worlds to explain the real parts that he cannot cope with.  Raised on the outskirts of the estate by a Catholic zealot, CJ has begun his road to ruin.


In the short term, it starts with a very well portrayed affair with Dolly Mixtures (or Dolores McCausland), another Catholic who can’t stand or live by the all too temperate Protestant mores of the district.  Alas, Dolly is staying in a household that includes Marcus Otoyo, a saintly black whom the local Catholic church has semi-adopted as a saint himself.  CJ’s jealousy, or homophobic lust, coupled with his longing for parents (or parent-like figures) creates disaster.


All of this is told from the perspective (both adding in and leaving out details — only the reader can try to figure out which) of a 67-year-old CJ who now lives in The Happy Club, shacked up (sort of married) with a beautiful Croatian whom he loves/distrusts at this age every bit as much as he loved/distrusted Marcus a half century earlier.


McCabe’s story is interesting, but it is not the real strength of the book.  That lies in CJ’s inability to cope with what is around him — originally the non-recognition from his parents, then the treatment of Asian doctors at the Asylum where he is treated, now just about everything that represents the arrival of the Celtic Tiger.  A true “Boomer” throughout it all, his touchstone is the music of the 1960s — Lulu and Peggy Lee figure prominently and it helps a lot as a reader if you remember their lyrics.  In the present tense, CJ and “wife” are regular visitors at Mood Indigo, a boomer-themed club by the retirement residence that keeps playing all that music.


McCabe does an excellent job of capturing the dislocation that CJ feels throughout his life — as a youth, during middle age and now in his senior citizenship.  It is not a perfect book by any means — it is definitely a worthwhile read.

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